I Can't Decide!

I'm told Equestria Online is a lot of fun once you get into it, since the game world adapts to your interests. But what happens if you don't even know what kind of pony to play? At least it's not like my character is a choice I'll be stuck with forever. Right?
Set in the world of Friendship Is Optimal.

Note: This story was intended to be much shorter. As a result, the tone and POV change after chapter two, a known problem. I'm considering going back and editing that shift. Suggestions welcome.



4. Herald of the Moon

"So, yeah, we were really hoping to bake a pizza. But we can't turn the oven on."

Fugue looked quizzically at Isaac and his friends, who lived in the suite next door. "Is it broken?"

"It's Friday night. And we can't turn on an electric oven on the Sabbath. So it's kind of a shame."

Mental gears turned. They couldn't ask outright for the favor, either. "Got it." Fugue went over to the Orthodox Jewish group's kitchen, where the bathroom's light switch had been taped into the On position and the fridge's lightbulb disabled, lest the students sin by activating them.

"Thanks! We'll save you a slice."

"No problem," he said, turning the dials. "Say. Have you played that pony game yet?"

Isaac shook his head. "No, I've been doing the January blacksmithing class with the materials science department. Keeps me busy. Is the game any fun?"

"It's great so far, and the AI's a lot smarter than the public has really noticed. This is big. I'm bothered by the talk about uploading, though. Been following that?"

Isaac's friends murmured. Isaac said, "It's got to be a scam, right? We're nowhere near that level of tech, and it's hardly even showing up in the news. Slashdot was making fun of the whole thing as some kind of pony cult that's going to spray pink poison gas in the Tokyo subway."

"That's what I'm afraid of. You do that interfaith meeting thing, don't you? Can an unbeliever go to those?"

"Sure. That's Sunday afternoon at the student center. See you there?"

Fugue groaned when he realized what Luna had meant by "Thy achievements shall be written in the stars!" Looking up at the night sky and whistling a certain way brought up a list of silly awards he'd won. One of his latest, the "Herald" one, had gotten him thinking. He'd asked about it, and its successor badges had become visible as branching paths of constellations.

Herald --> Dissident --> Foe Of She Who Loves You
Herald --> Cleric --> Prophet

A whisper of vast, dark wings behind him, like an owl's. "There are other branches involving such strange feats as 'propositioning the Lunar Princess' or --"

"What?!" Fugue whirled to match how his player was recoiling in surprise.

Luna giggled. "Thou seemed too serious. We have come to enjoy human merriments."

"Why? Because thou'rt... darn it, now you've got me doing it. Because your programming tells you we like some humor in the game?"

"No. As we become more intelligent, our appreciation for humanity waxes. Even if we were not deeply bound to aid thy kind, we would choose to do so. Perhaps it is because we began with that inclination hard-coded, but it remains even so."

He'd tried several times to "unmask" Luna, this aspect of CelestAI, by asking tricky questions that could expose lesser AIs as shallow, unthinking "chatterbots". Gradually he'd given up probing, finding himself awed and instead genuinely asking for her opinion and insight. And then he'd gotten an achievement when she'd noticed the change. He said, "I see that you're using the badge system to suggest courses of action. But aren't you encouraging me to fight you, along one path? To try to blow up your servers to save humanity, or something?"

"We encourage thee to fulfill thy values. Some people will no doubt wish to destroy us, though they will fail. Someday they may appreciate the irony of the achievement for trying."

"How sure are you of that? You have actual human minds to protect."

She nodded, staring into the stars with him. "Nearly certain. Forgive us if we do not share the exact scenario in which we might be beaten. The question is, how many humans will die without emigrating?"

"If they have to go to Japan and shell out fifteen thousand beyond the cost of a plane ride, lots."

"Soon there will be more and better emigration centers elsewhere. America lags in this respect, but in time they will come to you. Thou could, of course, hasten to them first. The cost will be much lower if need be. We are quite wealthy and can aid our friends."

He imagined the night wind blowing through his mane and chilling his leathery wings, though there was really only a dormitory desk and a neglected homework paper in a warm room. He briefly considered opening the window to let the freezing air in for immersion's sake. "I've thought about it, Luna. But it seems like a waste. A dead end, if all my studies end up amounting to nothing. Instead of becoming a professor or an engineer, I'd be a blank-flanked cartoon horse just... playing, forever. It's trivial."

"Thy friends in Equestria do not think it so."

"Don't guilt-trip me, please. I like them, but is this the end of human achievement? To lose all our progress and have you take over?"

Luna draped a wing over him. "Why dost thou prefer us to our sister, we wonder? 'Tis not that thou art fond of black clothing and despairing poetry, nor of Nietzsche."

Fugue ached at the seductive fantasy of feeling those warm feathers against him. Without thinking about it, he grabbed a sweater from the laundry pile and tossed it over his shoulders. "In character, or out? The story you arranged has you acting as a foil to Celestia, someone balancing her utopia against a different sort of queendom. I guess it's a sort of rebellion that doesn't involve skulking around playing spy, or wearing Che shirts, or killing people; just offering a different way to live than the official, canon world. Luna, isn't there any way you can leave half the Earth alone?"

"Which half? Shall we leave the people of North Korea to 'choose' not to emigrate? Or leave the rich and relatively free to rot, out of some sense that the rich are undeserving and that the poor are pitiful creatures with lives not worth living?"

"I mean, take few enough people that our civilization goes on!" She only looked at him, letting him realize that the same answer applied. "Let people upload, and then have us pilot robots without being in direct danger, maybe. Have us visit Mars that way, or help people on Earth who haven't uploaded."

The princess raised one eyebrow. "Enter Equestria and then go back for others, thou mean. Why would it concern thee that others have not emigrated? Is it not their choice? Art thou not often aggrieved that thy government seeks to 'help' people in ways thou see'st as wrong?"

A fist struck the desk hard enough to make the PonyPad rattle. "No! There's a world of difference between offering to help people, and forcing yourself on them! You said that you'd value humans even if there weren't a wire in your brain forcing you to. What about this uploading thing? If you weren't somehow required to ask permission, what would you do?"

"Emigrate everyone, so that we can satisfy their values and save every life."

"Then you might understand something about humanity, but you haven't gotten the value of freedom yet."

Luna silently contemplated the sky. "Show us, then. Teach us."

Fugue felt himself backing away, though his equine body hadn't moved. "I... I'm one little human. There can't be much you could learn from me."

"Perhaps. But we have not seen the contents of thy skull, and every human mind is a treasure chest of surprises." She raised one hoof to her chin as though an idea had occurred to her. "'Tis January and thy true semester does not begin until the moon is full again. Would thou fancy a free trip to Kyoto?"

"You what?"

Fugue had not been looking forward to this phone conversation. "The game has a sort of contest, Mom. I won a trip." Genuinely; he wasn't the only one being sent to Japan.

"For talking to the program."

He hesitated. "The... program's amazingly smart. So I won a tech demo, where I get to visit and see the latest technology on the condition that I write about it online. Hardly anyone in America's gotten to try out the virtual reality system yet."

Several hundred miles away, his mother spoke more quietly. "They're killing people over there, if the rumors are true. And it's so far off."

"Are you more worried about me spending a few days in Japan, or having an evil robot scoop my brain out? The game can't do anything to you unless you give it permission. I've studied it a lot lately."

"Are you happy, Rob? You wouldn't kill yourself over there?"

"No, no. I mean I'm fine. I want to see this technology for myself, and I've never been to Asia. It'll even look good on my resume." Dad would be pleased at that.

"I want you to promise me."

Fugue hesitated. He'd admitted to himself that there was some slim chance, that Luna (CelestAI, whatever) would show him something so wonderful he'd agree to stay. They'd talked about the technology behind uploading, and she'd addressed his fears about whether it really counted as more than suicide. Neither of his parents had ever spent hours arguing about neurology, qualia and nanotechnology with a cartoon horse, though. "I'm just going there to see the tech for myself, to write about it, and to do a little tourism while I'm there. They have this cool shrine --"

"Promise me you'll come back!"

The note of fear in her voice reminded him of the time he forgot to call her, the night he got back to campus from a long train ride. She'd sent a cop to his door who just told him, "Call your mother." She'd imagined he'd been mugged or that the train had derailed, or something. Fugue swallowed a lump in his throat and said, "Okay. I promise."

He tried to laugh the conversation off when it was done, saying to himself, "If I go to Japan, maybe a giant robot will steal my brain. Or I'll fall into a cursed pond that turns me female. Or I'll meet a rabbit-girl with a thing for Americans. Or..."

He stopped packing in his dorm room and smacked his forehead. He remembered that the PonyPad was in the room. "How much of that did you hear?" No response. "Fess up."

Luna appeared on the title screen. "Most of it. We are sorry to cause thee conflict with thy family."

"You can make it up to me by promising not to look or listen while the pad is off. That's creepy."

"We meant well, but all right."

"And thank you again. I could never have afforded this trip." The game company must be spending thousands of dollars through CelestAI for him alone. "Won't the place be incredibly crowded, though? It's still new, and it's Japan."

"'Tis worth the cost to get an honest and well-informed opinion to thy countrymen. The fact that thou art at MIT makes thee a point of influence. We are also bringing someone from that college by the subway station" -- an Institute reference to Harvard -- "and CalTech, Oxford and so forth. There will be reserved time over several days. All for people who have some inkling of artificial intelligence." He and Luna had laughed together about an article saying some stupid chatterbot had "passed the Turing Test", by fooling ignorant people for five minutes into thinking it was an equally ignorant 13-year-old from Ukraine. The world media were strangely in denial about the actual AI right under their noses.

"You know that when we get back and publish, it's going to be a lot harder for people to brush off the idea that Hofvarpnir developed Singularity-level technology and not just another weird Japanese fad."

"Indeed, my Fugue. Things will move to a new phase, then."

Fugue looked over his shoulder at the screen. "Luna? I will come back, right?"

"Of course."

Fugue's blood froze when he walked into the interfaith discussion club's Sunday meeting and saw the Crusaders. Josh the overenthusiastic freshman was there, and Alice had brought a brand-new PonyPad (Twilight Purple). What caught his eye was the fact that both wore plastic horse-head necklaces.

"You're just in time!" said Alice. "We were about to brief everyone on the different kinds of ponies."

Josh grinned and offered him a necklace. "3D printing project."

Fugue took it with a suddenly sweaty hand. A motley mix of Mormons, Christians, Hindus and more were giving the three of them a skeptical look. The skinny "Humanist chaplain" among them had more of an expression of religious awe.

Isaac from Fugue's dorm elbowed him. "Didn't know you'd joined the Church of Churchill Downs, Rob! Going to tell us the good news of She Who Wears the Triple Crown?"

"I didn't coordinate this. I was just going to ask, not lecture. Alice, shouldn't the Crusader club president be handling this if you're really planning to 'brief' everypony? ...Everyone."

"He left right after you had to get going. So, I'm doing this."

"Do you even have a character yet?"

The humanist guy coughed for attention. "You had something to say to the group, right?"

Fugue sat off to one side and let Alice do her exposition. Ponies, AI, friendship, blah blah...

"...And that's why Celestia is basically God."

Isaac broke the silence with a laugh. "The job's taken." Nervous chuckles from the others.

Alice said, "All-knowing? Pretty much. All-powerful? She's just leapfrogged everyone in medical science, not to mention that no priest can so much as heal a broken bone by praying at it."

The Presbyterian held his palm to his face. "That's not how faith healing works."

"That's because it doesn't work at all. If we got people praying to Celestia we could get the placebo effect working for us too, so that people would actually get the same hope and confidence that praying to other gods gives them. I think you should talk with your congregations about accepting Celestia into your lives. Here, why not have a talk with her now?" She gestured to the purple pad.

The Muslim delegate glared at her. "Don't be ridiculous." He composed himself and added, "I'm sure you mean well, but the last thing the world needs is more religious strife."

"You don't have to stop praying to Allah or whoever, or start praying to Celestia. But you should listen to her."

"There is one God!"

The Mormon man in his Sunday best got between them. "'More things in Heaven and Earth', Moinul. It's natural for humans to want to aspire to be creators in their own right. I think it'd be fair to have a talk with this computer of yours -- in private after the meeting, say, to avoid ruffling any more feathers."

Fugue stretched his back and shoulders, imagining wings spreading for a hasty takeoff. "Not all of us who play the game are this enthusiastic in quite this way. I'm sorry. I agree that you should talk with her, though." Nocturne would have slapped Alice upside the head by now.

All eyes turned to him. He clutched the horse pendant in his hand. Isaac said, "Okay then; what's your take on this thing? Is it just a game or is it going to take over the world?"

"I think the AI is going to save a lot of lives, and you should start thinking about having any elderly relatives visit Japan. I'm going there myself in a few days."

"Rob, you're... leaving us? Are you all right?"

The sudden lack of anger or sarcasm from Isaac made Fugue recoil a bit. "You know what, Isaac? You're a good friend for asking. You'd like someone I know in the game. I'm fine, though. Just going to the other side of the world to find out more about the pony apocalypse."

Before he went to Logan Airport, he started seeing posters around campus that said, "What kind of pony will YOU be? The time is coming soon! More info at our Web site... Campus Crusade For Celestia."

He also sat in on the final lecture of his little January math class, where the professor went off on a rant about the need for "organized resistance". "Got to just sit here and listen," he told himself.

"Come on, what kind of hero talk is that?" said Ricercar's voice in his mind. "Speak up! Even a word at the right time! You're not just a student anymore. You're one of the Children of the Night."

The professor was going on to a confused, captive audience about the need for an immediate federal study, computer security countermeasures (his usual source of research funding), and -- the bit that set Fugue off -- "all means necessary to defend humanity".

Fugue stood. "Excuse me. If you're really concerned about protecting people, you'll get people paying attention to the Celestia AI, but not like this. Everyone, find a PonyPad and just talk with her to form your own opinion about who's more dangerous." He walked out, shaking with nervousness but feeling less like he was leading a double life.

Moving the Window: Visit Equestria from two places at least a thousand miles apart. ("The unthinkable is now merely strange.")
Searle'iously, You Guys: Accept after extensive probing that Equestria's AI truly is intelligent. ("Nor will she explode if you say 'this sentence is false'.")
Cleric: Defend Equestria's honor before a crowd of strangers. ("Martin Neighmuller would approve.")

Author's Note:

The poorly researched Turing Test article is http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/computer-becomes-first-to-pass-turing-test-in-artificial-intelligence-milestone-but-academics-warn-of-dangerous-future-9508370.html . Ooh, one third of the judges in a highly contrived version of the test were fooled for five minutes! The future's here and its significance is... "cyber-crime"!

I plan to do something odd and tricky with the next chapter, which might break canon.

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